Lebanon conflict: Dark clouds and silver linings

Aint no sunshine

Some say that politics is warfare by other means. Lebanon has been trying to avoid such a reality, but the recent outbreak of violence seems to have confirmed its worst fears. Hopefully, as the dust settles, the shops re-open and the Beirut shoreline once again greets her mountains, Lebanon’s political leaders and their international patrons will take a moment to reflect on the lessons and losses of the latest fiasco.

While many are convinced that this round of conflict will domino into a full-fledged civil war, even in the haze of gunfire Lebanese leaders have shown restraint at the brink of an abyss. That all parties have deferred to the army, choosing cease-fire over chaos, is in itself cause for optimism.

Last week’s violence only proved to the country’s politicians what they already knew. Hizbullah and the opposition are overwhelmingly strong, and the government is a sitting duck, exists only in name, and has no command over the state structure. Most importantly, the army is the only party in Lebanon that can broker a way out of the stalemate.

In fact, the endorsement of General Michel Suleiman as the consensus president in December was a premonition of things to come. At that juncture, the pro-government camp and the opposition forces effectively capitulated, handing the stalemate over the presidency to the army. Through last week’s violence, Suleiman and his military forces are now the only standing entity in the country with the confidence of all national and international actors.

While some see the army’s involvement as a sign of Lebanon’s fragility, they fail to recognise the political opportunity it provides. Since Rafik Hariri’s assassination in 2005 and through the 2006 Israeli aggression and 2007 Fatah al-Islam campaign, the army has proved the most credible and stable state structure in Lebanon. As a result, it is being guaranteed support by the United States at the same time Hizbullah has decided to trust the army with the current crisis. It is indeed a rare moment when US President George W. Bush and Hizbullah leader Hasan Nasrallah both look to the same entity for conflict mediation.

The army’s challenge now is to deal with the country’s most complex problem – the status of Hizbullah. That the “Party of God” has accepted the army’s intervention into the issue of its telecommunications infrastructure should not be underestimated. Nasrallah’s trust of the army with a part of its “defence system” could be the first stage in the long road of reconciling its overall military status into a more normalised political one.

What is most needed now is breathing room, something international meddlers need to understand. While the Iranian president’s claim that it is not interfering in the country will rank as one of his more “memorable” comments, the extent to which Lebanon has become a proxy war between Washington and Tehran is only now being fully realised.

The USS Cole is returning to Lebanon’s waters even as Secure Plus, the American-trained private security firm that is loyal to the ruling government, was routed on the street last week in West Beirut. Such manoeuvring should prove that 21st century global political challenges will not be resolved by 19th century war tactics. Instead, pragmatism, prudence and self-restraint will offer the way out.

The fact that the Arab League’s mediation delegation managed to return things to the way they were ten days ago can be qualified as a short-term success. One hopes that Tehran and Washington will nurture this accomplishment by simply staying quiet. This would allow Lebanese political leaders to tone down the vitriolic rhetoric and walk away from the standoff without giving the impression of having lost.

Like their constituents, they do not want war, but a way out. Their immediate de-escalation of last week’s outburst and deferment to the National Army attest to that.

When I left the United States last summer to visit Lebanon’s strangled capital, most pundits were convinced, as they are today, of a pending civil war. But in Beirut, the Hizbullah guard at downtown’s “tent city” offered only a reluctant and ambiguous sigh to the notion, expressing a weariness shared by American University of Beirut students I spoke with in the posh district of Hamra. Tension, yes. Anger, yes. Desire for more? Not an ounce.

Even in the midst of the latest violence, one can see that Lebanese political leaders reflect their constituents’ reluctance and restraint. It is on this that Lebanon – and the rest of us – can place confidence that the endgame is near.

](Photo: Jennifer Hayes via flickr under a Creative Commons license)

Abbas Barzegar is a Ph.D. candidate at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. His research concerns early Sunni-Shi’ite divisions, contemporary Islamic politics and Islam in western countries. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org.

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